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The ups and downs of film sex – Simon Williams

Blog | By Simon Williams | Mar 19, 2024

​Sex at the Circus Burlesque (Credit: Brendan)

Ewan McGregor has said he used an intimacy coordinator for sex scenes with his actress wife. Actor Simon Williams remembers celluloid romps with Glenda Jackson and Jane Birkin

Sex scenes on screen are an endangered species.

In the light of coronavirus, the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein accusations, Directors UK, the professional body of film directors, has laid down new guidelines.

Nudity and simulated sex will only be allowed if they’re essential to the story. Actors must wear barriers to ensure no genital contact. And robes will be mandatory for all naked or semi-naked performers between takes.

The history of the sex scene has always been an, um, up and down affair. The days of a chaste kiss on the doorstep are long gone. We all knew the earth was never going to move for poor Doris Day in her frilly nightie - not with Rock in the driving seat anyway. Today - before those Directors UK guidelines kick in, anyway - punters demand nookie verité. Actors have to get down and dirty. They may know how to raise an eyebrow or a shed tear on cue, but now they have to be able to shag on 'Action!' Faking it, of course.

As each of the protagonists leave home in the morning, they kiss their real-life partners, chuckling, ‘It’s all in a day's work, darling.’ But when push come to shove (pardon the pun), no amount of drama school training will stop things running amok below the panty-line. The wardrobe department offer boys modesty pouches (known as cock-socks) and the girls are given thongs – sometimes modern girls need a merkin (pubic wig) for historical roles. Prosthetics are just not cricket.

These days, ‘Intimacy Co-ordinators’ are often hired to choreograph the lusting and thrusting: ‘Concentrate. Thrust. Scream. Writhe. Grope.’ With the advent of #MeToo, their job now includes refereeing what’s acceptable and what isn't.

Thanks to LGBT and diversity, we've moved on from the set menu to the full à la carte – although, for my first gay kiss, we agreed, ‘No tongues, ok mate.’

Rumpy-pumpy is no longer confined to the bedroom and is seldom done horizontally. Regardless of comfort or safety, couples thrash about on the stairs or against the Aga. You seldom see men on top these days. Their co-stars straddle them, gleefully riding a cock-horse to Banbury Cross – ‘Equal rights, here we come!’

Apparently, when Kate Winslet had to do a close-up, supposedly astride her leading man, she elected to do it alone, bouncing up and down on an exercise ball. Wouldn’t that be a fun out-take?

People imagine that love scenes are a mere fringe benefit for actors – like free oysters for a maître d’. But not everyone enjoys them. Helen Mirren hated being ‘objectified’ in the sixties, although you’d never guess it watching her at full throttle in some of her early films – hoisted on someone else’s petard.

Before kick-off, shivering actors are sprayed with glycerine - it looks like sweat. It also has a sweet taste – so it’s like snogging a boiled sweet. Poor Susannah York had ice-packs held against her nipples between ‘takes’ to keep them pert. When Oliver Reed and Alan Bates were filming their al fresco naked wrestling scene in Women in Love (1969), they used hot water bottles to keep their manhoods from shrivelling in the cold.

My first screen kiss was when I was 16, in 1962, with Jane Birkin in a home movie directed by her brother Andrew. On the boating lake in Battersea Park, he cast us adrift, kissing away the afternoon. Endless takes - what bliss. Afterwards, I asked Andrew if he really needed so much footage: ‘Oh no - I ran out of film after thirty seconds.’ Thanks, pal.

Once, as I was about to do a bed scene with a newly married leading lady, the director beamed, ‘Go for it, darlings. Give it plenty.’ As he scurried back behind the camera, my putative lover whispered in my ear, ‘If you lay a finger on me, I’ll kill you.’

Young actors apologise for their wayward stiffies. ‘He’s got a mind of his own, I’m afraid.’ Older ones excuse a no-show. Roger Moore told his Bond girls, ‘Don’t take it personally, love. You can lead a horse to water and all that…’

Filming sex scenes – even a ‘quickie’ – can take all day. I was once in a bed scene with Jan Harvey when the sound technician heard a rustling noise. The director peeled back the duvet to reveal that we both had our scripts tucked down our knickers.

On a cold morning in 1976, I had a love scene with Glenda Jackson. We weren’t really each other’s cup of tea and I was reminded of the old cartoon: a middle-aged couple, becalmed mid-coitus, and she’s saying, ‘Can’t you think of anyone either?’

When Joan Collins was filming The Stud (1978), she took a sickie and the doctor paid her a visit. He said, ‘Don’t worry. A couple of days on your feet and we’ll have you back in bed again in no time.’

Her main concern was her make-up. Joan would whisper passionately in my ear, ‘Mind my lipstick, darling.’